Witness one Robert Lippert, an American independent producer who flourished in multiple eras of Hollywood. We discuss his adaptation to changes in the movie biz in conjunction with a double bill DVD of two typical Lippert shows from the very early fifties, one produced in Hollywood and another in England. Robert Lippert is the proof that ‘Life Finds a Way’ in the movies as well, a sentiment reinterpreted as ‘staying in the game.’
I’ll Get You + Fingerprints Don’t Lie
Forgotten Noir Volume 6
VCI / Kit Parker
1951, 1952 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / Street Date April 24 2007, 2020
Starring: George Raft, Sally Gray, Clifford Evans; Richard Travis, Sheila Ryan, Sid Melton.
I’ve wanted to review the two ‘programmers’ in this double-bill disc for some time, not realizing that I was really more interested in a producer associated with them. The name Robert L. Lippert pops up continually in the history of some of my favorite genre pictures. The man was perfectly positioned in the business to make at least a little money from most anything he had a hand in. He also must have firmly believed that science fiction thrillers were sure moneymakers, as he made several notable entries in the genre.
Robert Lippert was a theater manager in California who picked up on the wartime boom for movie entertainment. He was to eventually own over a hundred theaters, in three separate chains. A consummate dealmaker, by the end of the war Lippert was bankrolling productions to provide a more economical product source for his movie houses. By the end of the 1940s he was producing his own films under the Lippert Pictures banner, and effectively coproducing many more.
Many independents wanted to get into the distribution business at this time but most were fly-by-night exploitation producers or underfunded one or two- shot hopefuls. Lippert had the solid income from his theaters as a buffer, which is how he was able to produce hundreds of movies that didn’t necessarily make a big profit. Almost all of them were cheap ‘programmers’ without big stars, for downmarket or second feature use. They could be called ‘B’ pictures, but that designation more accurately refers to tiered film production within a big studio — the cheaper ‘B’ pictures were made to accompany ‘A’ product on the studio-controlled theater circuits.
Independent producer-distributors had a chance after the Supreme Court decreed that studios couldn’t own their own theater chains, and lock out the competition. Although the divestment didn’t happen all at once, theater chains liked having an alternative to the high rentals charged for desired ‘big’ pictures. Studios soon found theaters resisting their overpriced ‘Bs’ as well. Depending on the laws of a particular state and the creativity of accountants, a theater owner like Lippert could also pair a popular studio ‘A’ with one of his less notable programmers, and split the double bill take in his favor. Sometimes these second features were so dull that exhibitors considered them ‘house clearers,’ freeing up seats to be sold for the next show of the main feature.
Lippert produced many cheap westerns and cheap crime thrillers, normally working with directors and producers that couldn’t get a meeting at a major. These included veterans of the old studio system, transplanted Europeans, and the occasional actor trying to produce or direct. Lippert also enjoyed some runaway hits — his first were films he bankrolled for the independent writer-producer-director Samuel Fuller, such as 1951’s The Steel Helmet. The first film out the gate about the Korean War, its violence and Pentagon-disapproved cynicsm made a major splash. Lippert was also attracted to science fiction filmmaking. He produced 1950’s Rocketship X-M, a copycat production that performed very well and helped launch the sci-fi craze of the 1950s.
I think this is an example of a Lippert ‘own both halves’ booking — his big hit with his little filler picture. I don’t know if he owned the theater, though. →
In 1953 Lippert helped Roger Corman get his start in film by agreeing to purchase and distribute Corman’s first production Monster from the Ocean Floor. Corman made the movie for much less than he told Lippert it might cost. Lippert loved the result but (according to Corman) arbitrarily cut the purchase price way down when he found out how little Corman had spent. Corman never worked for Lippert again but had the last laugh, spearheading innovative ways to make a profit in the low-budget filmmaking game.
By 1951 Robert Lippert was already engaged in mutually profitable deals overseas. London film companies were faced with their own special business problems, mostly involving economic protectionism to keep popular American movie product from draining money from the struggling English economy. Lippert contracted with the distributor Exclusive Films to release his American productions. But he also became a mostly un-billed co-producer on a number of modest English films. He sometimes didn’t provide production funds directly, but instead hired and paid American stars to work in England, actors the English companies couldn’t hire. This made the pictures more marketable in both countries (often under different titles). The big payoff for Lippert was ownership of the American distribution rights. For the price of hiring George Brent (The Last Page aka Man Bait) or Cesar Romero (Street of Shadows aka The Shadow Man) Lippert ended up with an entire movie to distribute in the U.S., free and clear.
The U.S. talent dispatched to London were usually stars on their way down. But the British films gave work to newcomers like Kay Kendall and Diana Dors. Lippert ended up being beautifully connected in the U.K. Independents like the Nassour Bros. would let Lippert distribute in the U.S., and for the U.K. would align with, say, Anglo-Amalgamated. Exclusive Films were the U.K. distributors for the then- modest Hammer Films, Ltd.. Productions that Lippert helped produce gave director Terence Fisher an introduction to his future home as a pre-eminent horror director. Lippert provided actor Brian Donlevy for Hammer’s first Quatermass film, which was released in the U.S.A. by United Artists. That success was instrumental in positioning Hammer to become a U.K. film production powerhouse, making co-financing deals with every major American studio and bringing big $ into the country.
When Robert L. Lippert began his wheeling and dealing, the production-distribution game was a closed system. Even Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler’s ‘Liberty Pictures’ couldn’t make a dent against the closed ranks of the Hollywood monolith. Lippert’s timing was excellent and his business acumen inspired. After discussing the two Lippert-associated titles on this 6th ‘Forgotten Noir’ double bill disc, I’ll continue with the mini-mogul’s later history, including what would seem to be major career mistake.
Fingerprints Don’t Lie
1951 / 56 min.
Starring: Richard Travis, Sheila Ryan, Sid Melton, Tom Neal, Margia Dean, Lyle Talbot, Michael Whalen, Richard Emory.
Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh
Film Editor: Carl Pierson, Harry Reynolds
Original Music: Dudley Chambers
Written by Orville Hampton, story by Rupert Hughes
Produced by Sigmund Neufeld
Directed by Samuel Newfield
Most of Robert Lippert’s films are co-productions with filmmakers. The prolific Sigmund Neufeld is the credited producer for Fingerprints Don’t Lie. The micro-budgeted programmer isn’t even an hour long, yet it contains at least five minutes of unfunny ‘filler’ comedy material with Lippert’s favorite comic actor Sid Melton. Sid’s daffy news photographer Hypo Dorton can’t make his camera function, the same basic gag in three different scenes.
Young artist Paul (Richard Emory) is swiftly convicted of murdering the mayor, all due to the testimony of an incredibly stodgy, literal-minded fingerprint expert Stover (Richard Travis). The mayor’s daughter Carolyn (Sheila Ryan) enlists Stover to revisit his decision to try and prove that Paul was framed. Moving about the insubstantial standing sets, the actors try to make something of a clunky story and direction that mostly marks time. The villains are more obvious than obvious; the only reason they’re caught is that they’re more stupid than the unimaginative good guys. Fingerprint expert Stover initially makes nothing of his observation that the prints that condemn Paul are all too identical, almost as if they were copied and planted. Gee, I guess fingerprints do lie.
The film’s music score is almost all an organ accompaniment suitable for a silent movie. That saved a few pennies, no doubt. The director simply arrays the characters on screen in ways that don’t make them move, to erase the likelihood of flubs that might necessitate another take. At one point a character crosses a room: in shot #1 he must take three steps, but the next shot #2 the space is covered in just one step.
All transitions showing exteriors make use of stock shots, some of which are (accidentally?) flopped so that signs, etc., read backwards. The one bit of fight action is completely muffed. A bad guy shoots a cop, who first grabs for his stomach, and then seems to decide that he’s been shot in the shoulder. The villain cooperates with fate by falling out of a window that a stock shot has just established as being a six-story drop. But the camera angle is so hastily chosen that we see him landing on the stage floor outside the window and rolling away. We can even see a sash weight holding down the ‘city view’ backdrop. It’s as if anything goes, as long as something resembling a movie can justify asking for a rental. We’re told that Lippert later arranged for a half-hour version of Fingerprints Don’t Lie to be re-edited for TV use.
Former star Lyle Talbot and the semi-notorious Tom Neal are in for glorified walk-throughs. Lippert often saved roles for an actress named Margia Dean. She seems shoehorned into this picture, but would later get a starring role in the London-produced The Quatermass Xperiment. The film’s flippant attitude can be judged by the first courtroom scene. ← Sid Melton’s Hypo Dorton notes a wanted poster on a courthouse bulletin board, and he reads it out loud: it’s a public enemy alert for a criminal named ‘Sid Melton.’
The print of Fingerprints Don’t Like carries a ‘Spartan Productions’ title and copyright credit, but the IMDB identifies that as a ‘Sigmund Neufeld Productions’ DBA. Perhaps these proliferating production companies were a way of confusing the tax boys… it’s certainly been done in other businesses.
I’ll Get You
1952 / 79 min. / Escape Route
Starring: George Raft, Sally Gray, Clifford Evans, Reginald Tate, Patricia Laffan, Frederick Piper.
Cinematography: Eric Cross
Film Editor: Tom Simpson
Original Music: Hans May
Written by John V. Baines, Nicholas Phipps
Produced by Bernard Luber
Directed by Seymour Friedman
1952’s I’ll Get You was likely initiated by England’s Banner Films, a two-feature effort that also produced The Limping Man, another Lippert-connected title that imported Yank actor Lloyd Bridges and gave the blacklisted American director Cy Endfield his first feature-in-exile, albeit under the name ‘Charles de Latour.’ Lloyd Bridges wasn’t a big name but he had just starred in America for both director Endfield and Robert Lippert.
The various production entities in these deals can be confusing. Were they sharing the risk, perhaps? In addition to Banner Films, the company Eros Films receives a credit on I’ll Get You. Eros made mainstream films but also had their fingers in a long list of humble productions remembered only by fans of genre ephemera: The Strange World of Planet X aka Cosmic Monsters; The Woman Eater; Stranger from Venus; Fire Maidens of Outer Space, Blood of the Vampire.
The ‘stars’ of Lippert’s Hollywood production Fingerprints Don’t Lie once had roles in a big studio production or two, but they wouldn’t qualify as marquee names for London. For I’ll Get You Lippert provided the services of the big star George Raft. Despite some lackluster recent movies the public was well aware of Raft because his name was frequently associated with real gangsters, like Bugsy Siegel. Hyper-sensitive about maintaining a clean-cut image, Raft turned down even mildly villainous roles. When he quit Warners in 1942 his main legacy was for refusing parts that ended up helping Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield become front-rank stars. He had mostly walked through his post-war movies, giving the same flat delivery. He barely seemed involved. Lippert actually contracted Raft for three Banner Films movies, starting with the slightly better-known Loan Shark (1952) and finishing with The Man from Cairo (1953).
Raft performs much the same way in I’ll Get You, a spy tale about a ‘brain-drain.’ Scientists and engineers from the U.K. and U.S. are disappearing behind the Iron Curtain. Some defect voluntarily but others are being snatched off the streets. That conflict ends up being mainly background, for it takes most of the movie for American aircraft expert Steve Rossi (Raft) to properly make contact with the foreign agent committing the crimes. There isn’t even a dramatic ‘crossover’ scene in which Steve decides to side with the British authorities. Nothing changes in his vaguely tough-guy dialogue delivery. His supposed ‘romance’ with undercover agent Joan Miller (Sally Gray) has to be taken on faith as well.
Exterior shoots on nondescript London locations show Steve meeting with various untrustworthy foreign contacts. Noted actress Patricia Laffan ( ↓ ), so effective in Quo Vadis and (honestly) Devil Girl from Mars has one scene as a secretary who falls afoul of the scientist-snatching ring. Actor Clifford Evans makes a brief appearance as the spy kingpin captured by Raft’s two-fisted hero at the fade-out. He’s now best known for Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf and The Kiss of the Vampire.
The movie plays it safe for politics. It’s ascertained that Scotland Yard and ‘British Private Intelligence’ are monitoring all that happens. The foreign Reds doing the snatching are never identified, even though Hans May’s music score lamely quotes ‘The Volga Boatmen’ whenever nefarious enemy agents are afoot. [I looked up a fine YouTube encoding of The Song of the Volga Boatmen. Although it’s from the 19th century we know it as audio shorthand for Soviet perfidy… it’s really powerful stuff when the ‘Red Army Chorus’ opens up in full (at about 1:55 in).]
I’ll Get You is more competently made than Fingerprints, but it still lacks excitement due to George Raft, who seems convinced that his only duty was to be himself, say the words in as relaxed a way as possible and do a little fist-fighting for a finale. Screenwriter John Baines has impressive credits, including on the classic Dead of Night; he must have phoned this in. Director Seymour Friedman has a long list of credits on studio ‘B’ films, and later became a production supervisor. When the beautiful and talented Sally Gray (Green for Danger, I Became a Criminal) finished I’ll Get You she promptly retired from film work.
Frankly, I always wondered if I’ll Get You was ever shown as the second feature on a double bill with this movie. What a great marquee that would make.
Finishing up with the Unsinkable Robert L. Lippert.
It’s good that Robert L. Lippert made such lasting connections overseas, because a couple of years after these shows his Lippert Films ceased producing in the U.S.. His wiki page soft-pedals the debacle, calling it a ‘dispute with the Screen Actors Guild’ instead of what it was, a take-no-prisoners battle. Lippert released a package of his films to television in 1951 or so but refused to pay residuals to the actors, as in the SAG contracts. After a long legal battle the powerful Hollywood guilds blackballed him outright, probably as a warning to others.
A man owning over a hundred movie theaters is going to remain connected; Lippert doesn’t seem to have been slowed down by this industry drubbing. By 1956 he was stealth-producing ‘Regal’ films, most of them in CinemaScope-dodging ‘Regalscope,’ to be released by 20th Fox. Lippert executive-produced, with producing credits going mainly to the director. The Regal playlist included plenty of westerns, a couple of horror films and the superb noir caper film Plunder Road. But we best remember his sci-fi pictures She Devil, The Unknown Terror and Kronos. 1958’s The Fly looked so much like a winner that Fox boosted it to ‘A’ status. It was filmed in Color by DeLuxe and released in 4-track stereo. The Regal Films credit was removed from the credits.
A monster hit and a real classic, The Fly may have made Regal a bit too visible. This time the Screen Writer’s Guild forbade its members to work for Regal, which quietly folded its tent. Lippert simply changed names again. His follow-up Fox-distributed films The Return of the Fly and The Alligator People became ‘Associated Producers’ productions. That name would stick for Cabinet of Caligari, Hand of Death, The Day Mars Invaded Earth and the Italian-filmed, A.I.P.- released The Last Man On Earth. By the time of Curse of the Fly and The Earth Dies Screaming ‘Lippert Films’ was operating in the clear again, but based in England.
Robert L. Lippert helmed a busy flow of productions that launched and fed a lot of talent, even if only a handful of classics resulted. I would imagine that many in the business watched Lippert’s adventures closely. American-International surely did: that company altered the Lippert formula for independent success by pairing up two inexpensive movies specially tailored for the drive-in youth market. They dispensed with the bigger main feature, compensated with attention-getting gaudy advertising, and kept all of the rental fees. By time his Regal Films was doing business Lippert was following A.I.P.’s example closely, as was most every other studio or outfit, small and large.
VCI & Kit Parker’s DVD of I’ll Get You + Fingerprints Don’t Lie is a catalog item that gives us decent standard-def encodings of both films in good condition. Kit Parker films appears to own quite a bit of Lippert’s output from the early 1950s, including the co-productions filmed in Europe.
Joel Blumberg offers an animated commentary for Fingerprints that’s largely a list of credits and career histories for everybody we see on screen. When personnel move from Lippert Films to Regal and Associated Producers, he doesn’t seem to realize that they’re all really the same company. Another professional speaker named Stone Wallace narrates a video featurette about George Raft’s career. The extras menu also lists a photo gallery, some trailers and a series of text bios.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I’ll Get You + Fingerprints Don’t Lie
Movies: Good – Minus, Fair included for discussion of Robert L. Lippert
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: One commentary, one featurette, trailers, still galleries, text bios.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 13, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson